It’s not uncommon to come to therapy intent on fixing something about yourself or your life. You may reach out to a therapist expressing a desire to get rid of anxiety, stop feeling so angry all of the time, or get off the couch and into a workout program.
While problem-solving and making values-based behavioral changes can be helpful and at times life-changing, it’s not uncommon to discover that underneath this desire to change lies core beliefs and feelings of unworthiness and disconnection, or trying to push away aspects of yourself that you may deem unacceptable such as jealousy, anger or grief.
Believing that there is something wrong with us or what we’re experiencing internally is a form of shame. Self compassion offers an alternative to self-esteem that addresses the shame, sense of unworthiness and isolation that so many of us struggle with.
Kristin Neff, a self-compassion researcher, has identified three elements of self-compassion
1. Self Kindness is about treating ourselves as we would a good friend or someone we care deeply about.
2. Common Humanity involves looking at the experiences of making mistakes and not always living up to your ideals as a normal part of being human, rather than a fatal flaw.
3. Mindfulness allows us to be with, rather than in our painful experiences from a place of
You may be wondering what the difference between self-esteem and self compassion is. Wouldn’t someone who has high levels of self compassion also have high self esteem, and vice versa?
The main difference is that self-esteem relies on external factors and comparing ourselves with others’ successes and failures, while self compassion involves loving and treating ourselves with kindness regardless of external circumstances.
The benefits of cultivating self compassion over self esteem include:
- A more stable sense of self-worth regardless of external factors
- Greater resilience in the face of challenges
- Increased empathy
- More likelihood to persevere after failure
- Feeling less isolated
- Decrease in depression, anxiety and PTSD symptoms
All of this might sound great, but you may be asking yourself:
What can I do to be more compassionate toward myself?
Get to know your inner critic
Give your inner critic a name, perhaps an image and get curious about what it’s trying to do for you- this will help you “unblend” from it so it loses some of its punch and power. It might sound counterintuitive, but understanding the positive intention behind the voice of judgment and criticism in your head can help transform it from bully to your biggest cheerleader.
Take a self-compassion break
Kristin Neff’s website offers a lot of free guided practices that help you connect with the elements of self compassion (self compassion, common humanity mindfulness). The self compassion break is a simple, 5 minute exercise and can be a good place to get started.
Let go of perfectionism
When we have impossible standards for ourselves and don’t allow for the inevitable humanness of messing up, it creates the perfect breeding ground for harsh self-criticism. Practice allowing mistakes, even if that wasn’t the message you got growing up (or now).
Create a little space from your thoughts and feelings
When we’re in a self-critical loop or mode, it can be helpful to bring a little mindfulness to what’s going on. Simply adding the phrase “I notice I’m having the thought/feeling” before the harsh thought or painful feeling can give us a little breathing room to help us not over-identify with the emotions and thoughts and that may be fueling them.
Build better boundaries
Part of self compassion involves not just sending more kindness to ourselves, but also giving ourselves the respect that we’re worthy of. I like to think of this as “fierce” self compassion. Sometimes saying “no” or on the flipside challenging ourselves to be more open to opportunities you might have previously been closed off to is a great way of taking good care of ourselves.
Talk to someone
Working with a therapist who understands the benefits of as well as the challenges of practicing self-compassion can help provide more insight and heal the parts of yourself that may not believe you are worthy of the love and compassion that are in fact your birthright.
It can be helpful to think of self compassion as a practice rather than a goal. Just understanding that it’s hard to access self compassion when we live in a world that thrives on comparison and external achievement as ways to measure our worth can be a move toward self compassion.